Friday 27 January 2023

Opposition in profile: Reading

Erik ten Hag's Manchester United evolution continues apace as the Reds face a familiar face in our ninth game in 32 days. 
There was a time when this weekend's opponents were regular divisional rivals, but despite their relegation in 2013, the Royals of Reading need little introduction. This will be our third meeting with the men from Berkshire in the last six years, with all three coming in this competition in M16. We met them in the third round in 2017 (4-0) and at the same stage two seasons later (2-0). 

Reading's fans must be sick of the sight of Old Trafford but will make the 400-mile round trip for this fourth-round encounter hoping to secure only a second-ever win over United. You have to go all the way back to 1927 for their only triumph against a Reds side in turmoil and languishing in the lower reaches of the top flight. It came at the third time of asking in a second replay at Villa Park after 1-1 and 2-2 draws. 

Under the tutelage of former United midfield hardman Paul Ince, Reading currently sit in 14th place in the Championship, having lost 4-0 at struggling Stoke last time out. Ince will have fond memories of the FA Cup having won it twice in his six seasons at United as well as two Premier League titles, the League Cup, the European Cup Winners Cup, and the European Super Cup. 
That would normally be more than enough to earn legendary status at Old Trafford but his two-season stint with Liverpool tarnished his legacy and ensures he is set to receive a lukewarm 'welcome' in the opposition dugout tomorrow night. 
Ince's son Tom has played against us for Huddersfield Town and is likely to do so again for the visitors in this one having missed only two games all season. 

There are other familiar names to look out for in the Reading camp including former Liverpool and Newcastle striker Andy Carroll, ex-West Brom and Saints striker Shane Long - back for a second stint with the Royals - and Newcastle loanee Jeff Hendrick. Junior Hoilett and veteran centre-back Scott Dann also ply their trade for Ince's second-tier mid-tablers. 

Formed 151 years ago in 1871 as the Biscuitmen due to the presence of biscuit makers Huntley and Palmers in the town, they are now known as the Royals due to Reading's close proximity to Windsor Castle.  
Reading's most successful era coincided with the opening of their new ground at Elm Park. Established in the upper echelons of the Southern League with the likes of Southampton, Southend United, Brighton and Gillingham, they won the Division Two title in 1911 and then finished runners-up upon promotion to the First. 

Their next highlight came in the aforementioned Cup run of 1926-27. Having vanquished United en route, they bowed out to eventual winners Cardiff at Molineux in the last four. Local biscuit business Huntley and Palmers made FA Cup-shaped biscuit tins in honour of their home town team - only for them to be shipped to India when they fell at the penultimate hurdle.

For all of our own historic, legendary feats of derring-do, Saturday's opponents boast something we do not - nor likely ever will: an English league points record. The 2005/06 season was an unforgettable one for the Reading Royals: a record-breaking 106 points, 99 goals, a 33-match unbeaten run and promotion before the clocks went back. Upon promotion to the top tier of the English game for the first time ever, their heady upward trajectory continued under the erudite expertise of former Red Steve Coppell. They finished eighth during their debut campaign in the Premier League, flirting with Europe for most of the season, only a point behind UEFA-Cup-bound Bolton. Surely the greatest couple of years in the history of this small, provincial club from a sleepy commuter belt on the outskirts of London.

Another former United boss, Jaap Stam, has come closest to taking the side back to the riches of the Premier League. After a third placed league finish in 2016-17, two dramatic play-off games earned the side a trip to Wembley where they were denied promotion by the pain of penalties at the hands of Huddersfield Town. 

John O'Shea - one of Sir Alex Ferguson's most trusted United lieutenants - ended his career at the age of 38 in 2019 after a season with the Royals and then moved on to the coaching staff at the Madejski.

Saturday's cup tie kicks off at 8pm on Saturday under the lights at Old Trafford.  

Wednesday 25 January 2023

Antony: Man Utd's misunderstood defensive winger

In the wake of United's last-gasp 3-2 defeat to league leaders Arsenal, Manchester United's 88m man Antony has come in for a fair chunk of criticism.
We love criticising players in this country, people expect everything yesterday and have astronomically high standards no one could ever hope to reach. It appears Antony is no exception to that unwritten rule. 

Being a Brazilian winger, there is a natural assumption for flair, flamboyance and an ingrained ability to leave defenders with 'twisted blood'. Coming from the country which made the Beautiful Game exactly that, eye-catching swash and buckle is expected to be part of your DNA. Brazilian footballers are revered for their swagger, style and skill. 

But in Antony, Manchester United have a very different brand of winger. Brazilian-born but European in style, the former Ajax man scored three goals in his first three league games in the Red of United, becoming the first player ever to do so. A debut goal against the Gunners was followed up with strikes against Everton and a derby day screamer in the 6-3 demolition at the hands of City.
A spell out with injury before the World Cup followed and Antony has added to his goal tally since the restart with a stunner in the win over Charlton and the opener in the next game, the FA Cup win against Everton. 

Five goals in 19 appearances (two as sub) hints at a good return for a winger not known for his goalscoring prowess having scored 25 in 82 games under Erik ten Hag at the Eredivisie giants (11 in 2020-21, 12 the following season and two in the early part of this term before his move to Manchester. 

Antony is, in essence, what we might call a defensive winger: fans expecting him to surge past opponents in the style of a 'flying winger' and beat several men, the likes of which you would see about 15 years ago, simply don't understand his game. He is yet to register an assist or create a so called 'big chance' but he's not that sort of player, nor has he ever been nor ever will be. That's not his role in this team: it's not what we bought him for and there needs to be an understanding and a knowledge of exactly what his job is in ten Hag's United team. He is team focused and plays the game on substance rather than style. Think Willian, a younger version of James Milner, Dejan Kulusevski and Brighton's Pascal Gross. You can even put Bukayo Saka in that bracket too. These players are known for their defensive guile and in favouring a team environment ahead of flashy individual work. 

Antony has been playing superbly down United's right but he cannot do the job people expect him to do. There are flashes of flair and trickery such as his spin the Europa game against Sheriff when he was hauled off immediately afterwards but panache of that nature has been few and far between. 

In the Twittersphere, a narrative already seems to have been written. A narrative suggesting he is a flop because he doesn't beat his man and because he likes to cut in and use his left foot. His supposed 'lack' of contribution has become a stick to beat him with even though those of us who watch him every week know exactly what he offers. Most wingers are one footed: Ryan Giggs, Arjen Robben and even perhaps the greatest of them all, Lionel Messi, have become renowned for not having a right foot. 

It said everything Oleksandr Zinchenko had the freedom of the Emirates when Antony was subbed off. Until then, the bleach-blonde United man had kept Arsenal's rampaging tour de force, Kevin de Bruyne lookalike quiet and his willingness to recycle the ball in possession was a key component of going toe-to-toe with the leaders (and champions-elect) for so long. 

His work rate, his tracking back and his ability to help out either Aaron Wan - Bissaka or Diogo Dalot to press and win the ball back is under-appreciated and why ten Hag likes him so much. 

The club's powers that be have admitted they vastly overpaid to land one of ten Hag's main targets in the summer. That has certainly not helped his cause, but it's important to remember he is still young and in his first season at this level. ten Hag is only just halfway through his first season and has yet to implement the full scale of his ideology at Old Trafford. 

The golden rule of 'never judge a player in his first season' should take full effect here. Writing Antony off already is simply nonsensical. 

Monday 23 January 2023

Valiant Reds fall short but there's plenty to be proud of

Manchester United fell agonisingly short at the Emirates but Erik ten Hag's improving side should leave the capital with plenty to be proud of.

Eddie Nketiah's late, late winner kept Mikel Arteta's Gunners firmly on course for the title but it's important to remember Arsenal are in the third year of their project under the dapper Spanish gaffer. 
ten Hag has been at United for six months and had to make do without key midfield maestro Casemiro in one of our biggest games of the season. They are two seasons ahead of us but we still went toe-to-toe with them and only succumbed in the final minute.

A fine side at the very apex of their lofty ambitions against an improving one on those tentative first few steps up the mountain.

All things considered, then, and despite the agony of this late defeat, it was also a measure of how far we've come. Arsenal will feel they deserved their win but the Reds - clad in our white away strip for this fixture - will be encouraged by their fighting spirit and determination. Last season's United side would have been eviscerated by this Arsenal vintage and, indeed, many predicted a similar result this time. 

Marcus Rashford's stunning goal briefly raised hopes of a famous victory and a league double over the leaders and champions-elect. Nketiah quickly responded as he headed the hosts' level before Bukayo Saka curled home a stunner early in the second half. Lisandro Martinez stuck his head where most players don't put their feet to equalise with a looping header but lack of bench options and a punishing fixture schedule ultimately told. But there is no doubt this tenacious and improving United side is going in the right direction. 

United thought they had done enough to resist the inevitable late twist in the tale as the clock ticked down and our defence - with centre-backs Raphael Varane and Licha magnificent - held firm. It would be a stretch to say this was an onslaught, as David de Gea only made one save, in the 86th minute, but in the end, Arsenal's relentless pressing and insatiable energy finally wore us down. That always seemed inevitable seeing as the Gunners had a week off and this was our third game in eight days. 

Arsenal just ran that bit further; just had that little bit more in the tank they needed. That in itself is an illustration of they are two years ahead of ten Hag's United, but the erudite Dutchman will know we need to get to these levels. Arteta has done so, and thus ten Hag must be given the same lifespan to replicate the Spaniard's impressive work in north London. He has made a very strong start and has certainly got us charting a course for a successful season. This result may have ended any faint, lingering talk of a title challenge but we are in the top four and still in contention for all three knockout cup competitions. Considering no one gave us a chance before a ball was kicked, that is a very upward and tangible trajectory. 

So it was no wonder there was utter devastation when the brief hope offered by a VAR check on Nketiah's winner, first against Oleksandr Zinchenko and then the goalscorer, was extinguished and we simply did not have time to salvage a point.

United will look back on the costly absence of the experienced Casemiro, whose composure and game management would have proved vital in the frantic final stages. Giant striker Wout Weghorst acquitted himself well but is still adjusting to life in the Premier League.

There was still plenty to admire in our team, who gave as good as we got for the first hour and fought back well after Saka had put Arteta's side in front.

This was a breathtaking, thrill-a-minute Premier League game. Games such as this one are often cagey and chess on grass, but here were the country's two most in-form sides engaged in an almighty ding dong going at it hammer and tong for 94 compelling and captivating minutes.

It was a throwback to the halcyon days of yesteryear when these two giants of English football were engaged in a long and gruelling struggle for supremacy. A match that went to the limits, right up to the last seconds and even centimetres, could also be the one that proves Arsenal really can go all the way more than ever. 
United were such creditable parties to a vintage match that more than revitalised an all-time classic fixture, evoking memories of a time when this game used to bring the globe to a standstill. It hinted the Premier League's tectonic plates may be starting to rumble again. After Liverpool and Chelsea revived the energy of those trepidatious stalemates which were once the norm under Messrs Benitez and Mourinho in the mid-2000s, Arsenal and United rekindling the nostalgic vibes which have kept this storied rivalry simmering since the turn of the millennium made for a refreshing and perhaps unexpected change. 

Two giants have simultaneously awoken from their slumber with renewed panache, vigour and focus - the rebuilds at the Emirates and, indeed, at United, are ongoing and exemplary. There may not have been Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Martin Keown, Ruud van Nistelrooy or projectile pizza slices, but this was as close to those heady days as there has been since both of these heavyweights slipped from their pedestals. 

Rashford and the magnificent Martinez were again United's most impressive players. Luke Shaw, imperious of late, struggled against the pace and trickery of the outstanding Saka but is certainly not alone there. Aaron Wan - Bissaka was good again but Scott McTominay, deputising for the big shoes of Casemiro struggled whilst the game bypassed the quiet Christian Eriksen. United were also missing the Spaniard in September's win at Old Trafford - the Gunners' only league loss so far - but Arteta's side were without the services of the influential Thomas Partey. Questions remain over the suitability or otherwise of relative veteran David de Gea who, whilst he cannot be blamed for any of the three goals, put us under pressure with his suspect handling and questionable kicking. His ham-fisted punch under no pressure in the 81st minute, when it seemed easier to simply hold the ball and get United up the pitch, came to epitomise a curious performance from the keeper. 

On the other flank, Oleksandr Zinchenko was without peers. Not only did he limit £88m man Antony to fleeting glimpses of his undoubted talent, but he - perhaps more than anyone, helped Arsenal to exert the pressure. His ability to play as an inverted full-back, breaking into midfield to overload the opposition and resist the press with his passing is a key element to this Arsenal side's renaissance.

 Antony is good defensively and helps to retain possession, but he is understandably posing more questions than answers. He wasn't as bad as has been made out here, but you do expect a bit more from someone so expensive, even if that someone is still young and in his debut season at this level. United's defensive structure and durability certainly looked more vulnerable when the Brazilian winger was taken off. 

Losing to the champions-elect in the very last minute, a side which has only failed to win once in the league at home all season is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. There is absolutely no disgrace here at all. 

Sunday 15 January 2023

Erik ten Hag has reawakened the sleeping giant of Man Utd

The sight of the diminutive Luke Shaw rising to win a series of headers against the towering figure of Erling Haaland epitomised this Manchester United performance more than anything else.

As City pressed in vain to salvage even a point from a derby they thought they'd won, Shaw, starting ahead of World Cup winner Lisandro Martinez at centre-back, rose like a salmon to cap a colossal performance with one final heroic act of derring-do.
Cheered just as loud as Bruno Fernandes' leveller and Marcus Rashford's winner, Shaw - looking every inch the seasoned central defender - delivered a masterclass up against one of, indeed if not THE, greatest strikers of his and any other generation. At the final whistle, Casemiro sunk to his knees and Raphael Varane fist pumping and whipping up the crowd was a sign of the renewed belief and confidence surging from every inch of these players' pores. 

It was growing evidence that everything the erudite and tactically astute disciplinarian ten Hag is doing, every decision he is making, is working exactly as he planned. For this is not luck. Here is a simply magnificent and meticulous master of his managerial craft, a man putting a more and more indelible stamp on Manchester United by the week. He looks more at home, more suited to the task than many of his perhaps more illustrious predecessors have done in recent years.

United have only lost once in 19 games since that derby day humiliation back in October and even then can count themselves unfortunate at Villa Park on a day when we had enough chances, and much of the play, to warrant at least a point. 
It certainly gives weight to ten Hag's belief a harrowing experience could be used as a force for good. As the old adage says, more can be learned from defeat than it can from victory and that has been the case this season.

The conclusion to this derby may be riddled in contention, and you can feel a certain sympathy for City's complaints but United's character, belief and unity justified the growing optimism around Old Trafford - a far cry from the dark days of August when we lost at home to Brighton and were then eviscerated at Brentford the following week. Five months on, and even those defeats do not look so bad now given how well both sides are doing with the Seagulls seventh and the Bees eighth.

Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and now perhaps the mightiest of them all have been vanquished here by United this season, but victory over the champions, and the manner of it, is by far the most powerful statement of ten Hag's fledgling United tenure. 
The subsequent celebrations at the end of a thrilling and chaotic derby carried the conviction this giant club, our giant club which has lost its way so badly, is beginning to stir again. 

Casemiro has been the cement between the stones following his arrival from Real Madrid but so many other factors are coming together now as the Reds now sit only one point behind our vanquished opponents. A state of affairs no one would have believed a few months ago. Even the notion United would be in third place would have seen you laughed out of town. 

ten Hag has restored belief, instilled smart game management and has also made it clear who is in charge when Cristiano Ronaldo was hustled out the door sharpish following his insubordination. Even Marcus Rashford has not escaped ten Hag's stance as a firm but fair disciplinarian when he was dropped at Wolves after he was late for a team meeting.

Nearly every United player has improved beyond all recognition under the tutelage of ten Hag, but surely no one more so than Rashford. His winner here means he has now scored in each of his last seven games in all competitions, eight in total, and has hit nine in each of his last matches at Old Trafford - an extraordinary run of red-hot form in front of goal not seen for over two decades.

In stark contrast to Rashford's visceral joy, City goal machine Haaland had a rare fruitless day with only 19 touches in 95 minutes, only five of these in the United box as he was forced to the fringes by a magnificent performance from Shaw. 

Shaw was drafted in as an emergency centre-back during United's festive fixtures but, in only his fourth outing in that position, looked as though he's played there all his life. His inclusion over Lisandro Martinez raised eyebrows and looked a massive gamble especially considering the presence of Haaland, but it was yet another decision ten Hag got right. Just like he has with everything else. 
Such has been Shaw's string of superb showings as a left-sided centre-back, he is now a genuine option for ten Hag. 

Of course, any talk of the title is wide of the mark and very much tongue in cheek, no matter how much I've enjoyed the banter on social media.

City are still the benchmark and have dominated not just United but pretty much everyone else for the best part of a decade. We cannot, not yet at least, talk of measuring gaps to them, but what cannot be argued without contradiction is the fact we are, at last, moving in the right direction. Something special is cooking in the corridors of Old Trafford. You can feel it, you can sense it, you can witness it on andoff the pitch and in the stands at United now. 
ten Hag still has a lot of work to do after the barren years of underachievement, but to have us in the top three, right on the heels of City and even casting a glance at the leaders Arsenal (who we face next weekend) is testament to his fine body of work only six months into his reign. It is certainly a position we'd have snatched with both hands if offered back in August.

ten Hag's arrival and his measured, considered - perhaps even under-rated - approach was always going to be a case of gradual evolution rather than rapid revolution. But the best way to prove the graph is on an upward trajectory is to send the champions packing, especially when those champions are Manchester City. 

Player ratings: Several men shine as rampant Reds roar in thrilling derby

 Erik ten Hag's cooking title-winning Reds recorded another famous scalp as Pep Guardiola's faltering City went the same way as Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham in falling victim to this remarkable Reds renaissance.

The Reds were humbled and battered at the Etihad but showed lessons have been learned since that day as United exacted revenge on our local rivals to move within a point of Pep Guardiola's side in the process.

Here is how we rated each Red in a stunning instalment of the 189th Manchester derby.

David de Gea - 6

Had nothing to do as City only had one shot on target in 95 minutes - Jack Grealish's header for the opening goal. Nothing he could do to stop it and, although he would surely have expected to be a very busy goalkeeper, De Gea was a virtual spectator. His opposite number was by far the busier of the two stoppers.

Aaron Wan - Bissaka - 8

What a turnaround for a man who looked done under Erik ten Hag. A masterful showing from a player reborn and even showed some close control dribbling to set up a United attack on the right wing with United chasing the game.

Raphael Varane - 8

A constant, reassuring presence again at the heart of the defence. Tracked Erling Haaland when he dropped deep and won everything in the air as usual. Didn't put a foot wrong. Rolls Royce of a player.

Luke Shaw - 9

Shaw has gone from an emergency, makeshift centre half to a genuine option for United. Rendered the best striker in the world anonymous and was cynical and combative when he had to be. His huge header to get us out was roared to the rafters late on. 

Tyrell Malacia - 8

I was worried about his battle with Riyad Mahrez but it was one the young Dutchman won comprehensively. United's left-hand side was dominant and Malacia was a big part of that. A complete reversal of his showing in the game at the Etihad.

Casemiro - 7

Perhaps not quite as imperious as he has been with some wayward passing (by his standards) and could have perhaps done better for City's goal as he lost de Bruyne. But he was dogged and buzzed around to help United defend the lead. Still one of the best players on the field even when not at his best. 

Fred - 9

Tasked with shackling de Bruyne and cutting the supply line to Haaland, Fred did his specific role superbly. A lot of us Reds were calling for his inclusion and it worked. Won his duel with the Belgian and whipped the crowd up after two big tackles on de Bruyne. Impressive commitment and proactive play in another excellent derby performance.

Christian Eriksen - 5

Pushed into the no.10 role, he was neat and tidy in the first half and linked play well. But United lost control in midfield after the break and the game passed him by.

Bruno Fernandes - 8

Led by example and was at the heart of everything the Reds did. Perhaps should have scored in the first half but then did so - albeit in a contentious fashion - for the game-changing moment. 

Marcus Rashford - 8

Overcame an injury concern as he came to life to effectively 'create' the equaliser before he kept his incredible run going with yet another winner. 16 now in the season of this player's life. 

Anthony Martial - 5

Held the ball up well and did link the play effectively but he was an injury doubt before the game and it showed. Came off at half-time and was very lackadaisical. Does Wout Weghorst start ahead of him now?

Subs: Antony - for Martial ht - 5

Won a couple of corners and did some good defensive work but didn't offer too much

Alejandro Garnacho - for Eriksen 71 - 7

What a difference he made when he came on. United were losing their grip on the game and Garnacho helped to restore the equilibrium. Set up Rashford to send Old Trafford into delirium.

Scott McTominay - for Casemiro 90+2 - N/A

Came on late to help United see things out. No rating

Lisandro Martinez - for Malacia 90+2 - N/A

Surprisingly left on the bench and came on for an extra man in defence in the dying minutes

Harry Maguire - for Rashford 90+2 - N/A

Came on to help United see things out. No rating

Manager: Erik ten Hag - 9

Took a risk with his team selection but it worked yet again. What a man and what a manager. 

Match report: Man Utd 2-1 Man City

United delivered a brilliant and thrilling late come-from-behind victory as Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford swept Erik ten Hag's side to a ninth successive win.
The Reds are now only one point behind our fierce local cross-town rivals, and six points behind next weekend's opponents Arsenal to set up an unexpected surge for the Premier League title.

City have gone the same way as the league leaders, Liverpool and Tottenham in falling victim to ten Hag's juju and going down at Old Trafford in the face of this remarkable Reds renaissance. 

A quickfire Fernandes strike, initially flagged offside, and a Rashford tap-in, flipped a tightly contested derby upside down after substitute Jack Grealish headed City in front.

United left the Etihad Stadium battered and bruised after a chastening 6-3 defeat but have lost only once in 19 games since then with ten Hag insisting lessons have been learned.
Eyebrows were raised at the Dutchman's team selection with Luke Shaw again selected as the left-sided centre back in direct opposition to Erling Haaland. Lisandro Martinez was surprisingly on the bench, so too Antony with starts for Fred and injury doubt Anthony Martial.

After Pep Guardiola's side had characteristically dominated the early possession, the first opening of the tie went the way of United. Fernandes flashed a shot wide from a difficult angle having been picked out by Christian Eriksen in the box. Moments later, Fernandes was involved again when his lovely raking cross-field ball found Martial, but he was unable to trouble Ederson after incisive pressing from the Reds.

United magnificently shackled the almost anonymous Haaland as Fred, brought in for compatriot Antony, did a superb spoiling job on Kevin de Bruyne, forcing City's creative genius to the fringes with a couple of huge, crowd-pleasing tackles.

Ten minutes before half-time, it look as though United's threat had been rewarded with the opener. After another pinpoint pass from Bruno, Rashford burst clear and skipped beyond the advancing Ederson. But City's defence had backed up well and immediately cut off the angle to force Rashford wide and getting a block in.

United threatened again three minutes later with Rashford again at the heart of things. A beautiful one-two with Eriksen set the former free to find him one-on-one with Ederson but our in-form no.10 was again unable to convert as the Brazilian stopper stood firm to thwart Rashford's attempted dink.

Kyle Walker thumped narrowly wide from distance shortly before half time after a spell of neat and tidy City probing around our box.

If the first half was a compelling tactical battle, the derby - as expected - opened up with a number of fiery challenges flying in with the Old Trafford crowd whipped up into a frenzy.

Ederson saved well from Raphael Varane, even though the flag up was against the Frenchman, and Antony, on for Martial,  put Nathan Ake under pressure to force a succession of corners.
There was more zip and purpose in both sides' play but City blinked first when de Bruyne tested our defence with a number of searching crosses in quick succession. Varane dealt with the first one but the ball was recycled to the Belgian who picked out Grealish, only just on for Foden, to steer home an unmissable header from six yards out.

United had half an hour to rescue their unbeaten run with Alejandro Garnacho soon summoned from the bench in an attempt to wrestle back a modicum of control. 
Aaron Wan - Bissaka jinked his way through the City defence before he was closed down well, but the uplift in pressure finally told in the 78th minute albeit in slightly contentious circumstances.

Casemiro's defence-splitting ball found Rashford whom, offside, smartly decided not to play the ball but surely impeded Manuel Akanji. The Swiss centre-back had tracked Rashford but stopped, expecting the flag to go up, which allowed Fernandes to race through and slam beyond the stranded Ederson, who had come to collect what he thought would be a dead ball.

Referee Stuart Attwell consulted with his assistant, and the pair decided the goal should stand after ruling Rashford had not interfered with play. Old Trafford erupted, Pep and City exploded and the stage was set.

With the visitors still reeling from the blow of what they felt was a sense of injustice, Garnacho's influence again proved decisive. Just four minutes further on, the young Spanish-born Argentine burst clear and saw his cross blocked. But the ball came back to him and he steered into the path of  Rashford to fire in low under Ederson and wheeled away in delight at his 16th goal of an extraordinary season. Rashford has now scored in each of his last seven games in all competitions, eight in total, and has been on target in each of his last nine appearances at Old Trafford - the first Red to do so since Teddy Sheringham in 2000.

City inevitably piled on the pressure but were unable to muster even a shot in anger in response as United stood tall to hold out for a simply stunning, sensational victory.

Overall team performance: 8/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Luke Shaw. 

Friday 13 January 2023

Manchester derby: Five key battles to watch out for

Manchester United will look to end a run of three successive derby day chastenings when Pep Guardiola's City slickers arrive at Old Trafford for the 189th all-Manchester meeting.

The two-time defending league champions have won the last three matches between the sides by an aggregate score of 12-4 but United are in fine fettle and will be confident of a win. 

The two bald managers lock horns on Saturday lunchtime and, with that in mind, here are some of the key derby day battles to look out for.

Marcus Rashford vs Kyle Walker

Marcus Rashford is in the form of his life and a terrifying prospect for even the best Premier League defences. Rashford ran the show in the FA Cup win over Everton and struck a late brace having come off the bench in the midweek cup win over Charlton. He is likely to be United's main threat again and one of only two 'local lads' to feature in the derby. Tasked with keeping tabs on him will be Kyle Walker who has been used across the back line in a number of positions to great effect. Whether at full-back or as a makeshift centre-back or in a back three, Walker's experience will be crucial against United, our top scorer with 15 goals. 

Casemiro vs Rodri

Casemiro was still only a bit part player when the two sides met back in October. He had only recently arrived from Real Madrid and had yet to be fully integrated into the United side in the 6-3 loss. But now that he has been, he has proved an inspired, transformational player in the team, surely the greatest exponent of his craft anywhere in the country. His revered opposite number Rodri certainly runs him close for that particular roll of honour, with the two men sitting at the top of everyone's list when it comes to the Prem's best CDMs. 
Casemiro has formed a solid base alongside Christian Eriksen in United's midfield and has provided the defensive cover our centre-backs have been lacking with Scott McTominay and Fred. In what is sure to be a captivating individual battle, whoever seizes control of midfield is likely to go on and lay the platform for his side's win.

Antony vs Joao Cancelo

Joao Cancelo has perhaps not been at his usual best since the restart after the World Cup. He had a night to forget at right-back down at Southampton but Guardiola is likely to move him to left back where he helps to dominate the midfield. His attacking output is very impressive with the Portuguese having chipped with two goals and five assists so far, a solid return for a full-back. 
He will be in direct competition with Antony, who has impressed in United's last two cup wins but has also attracted criticism in some quarters. His off-the-back work rate and security in possession keeps United's ability to sustain pressure and also allows Diogo Dalot to bomb forward on the overlap (although Aaron Wan - Bissaka will start on Saturday). The form of Cancelo and Antony will make for a fascinating match-up and could go a long way towards deciding the outcome. 

Raphael Varane vs Erling Haaland

The irresistible force meets the immovable object. The league's outstanding centre-forward meets one of the league's best centre backs. Varane limped off 40 minutes into the Etihad debacle in October and City - spearheaded by Haaland's hat-trick - took full advantage. By his own astronomically high standards, Haaland is experiencing something of a goal drought having not scored in his side's last three games. Tasked with extending that 'drought' is Varane, who has shrugged off his World Cup disappointment in superb style. He has been rotated since the restart but United have only conceded one goal in that time and so Varane will be tasked with shackling City's cyborg in this one. Don't be surprised to see Haaland doubled up on by Lisandro Martinez as well. Have United learned their lesson from the last game? Shutting down the 21-goal Haaland does not guarantee success, of course, but would go a long way to helping to do so. Haaland's power and pace versus Varane's positional sense and aerial ability promises a fascinating tete - a - tete. 

Bruno Fernandes vs Kevin de Bruyne

Two very different types of 'CAMs'. Kevin de Bruyne leads the way at the top of the Premier League's assists chart, although that's not all that difficult when you have Erling Haaland up top. Bruno Fernandes may not be anywhere near that this season, but he is United's hardest-working and most important player. The respective talents of the two players always pop up every now and then, especially around derby day and the two are more or less locked together when it comes to the numbers. Fernandes only has three goals this season but has been no less important for Erik ten Hag. Two players who never get injured and play every game when available and two of the league's best no.10s. Both men will again be crucial to deciding their side's destiny when the cream of Manchester's footballing crop clash again at Old Trafford. 

Bring on the derby! 

Thursday 12 January 2023

Welcome to Manchester United, Wout Weghorst

Manchester United are set to complete the signing of Burnley's on-loan Besiktas striker Wout Weghorst  on a short-term deal until the end of the season.

The Dutch international will link up with his compatriot Erik ten Hag at Old Trafford and all eyes now turn to whether he will be registered in time to feature in Saturday's Manchester derby. 

Weghorst is flying to England on Thursday where the paperwork and his medical will be completed. He must be registered by 12pm on Friday to be in the squad for the visit of Pep Guardiola's men on Saturday lunchtime. There is no option to buy as part of the deal - it will be a straight loan until the summer. 
Weghorst scored twice in the last ten minute of his side's World Cup quarter-final with eventual winners Argentina, as Oranje recovered from two down only to eventually succumb on penalties.

Cristiano Ronaldo's acrimonious departure after his now infamously unsanctioned interview has left ten Hag with only the in-form Marcus Rashford and injury-prone Anthony Martial - neither of whom are genuine, out-and-out strikers - as his only options at no.9. If United are to maintain this winning form and go deep into as many competitions as possible, another striker was a must.  

It's true Weghorst is not Erling Haaland 2.0, far from it, but the 30-year-old is the best option from what was available and fits the needs of the squad to a 'T.' United desperately needed another striker and a player very different from our current options. At 6ft 6, Weghorst brings a strong, tall, physical presence to the attack and will be a decent option off the bench too if needed. His arrival allows United to end the over-reliance on Martial, and also allows us to mix our game up too. If we need a Plan B, we can get crosses into the box for Weghorst to get on the end of. He set up Jay Rodriguez to score for Burnley at Turf Moor against us and, although he was unable to help them stave off the drop, Weghorst caught the eye during his brief stint in east Lancashire and has scored eight goals in 16 appearances for Turkish club Besiktas in the Super Lig.

We need a rotation option and although he's not someone I would have pinpointed to come in and help us, if ten Hag wants him then that will do me. Dutch strikers have a good record at United and we won the league the last time we had one. He's not a big name but who were we going to get with a very limited budget in the short term? It's clear United will try to sign a longer-term centre-forward in the summer with Harry Kane and Napoli striker Victor Osimhen among the names mentioned. 

Beyond merely his goalscoring record, Weghorst is, as you'd expect for a man of 6ft 6, good in the air with effective hold up work. A goal poacher but also a striker willing to drop back and link the play, he averaged more presses per 90 minutes than anyone else during his time in the Premier League. In short, he's a nuisance for opposition defences and has all the assets needed to be a success at Old Trafford. 

The board were never going to go and spend £60m+ on a striker with the current financial constraints and the ongoing process of a sale. We always had to get someone cheap and I will back big Wout 100%. People just think of the biggest names all the time but let's give this lad a chance and, like I said, if it's what the manager wants then I'm all for it. 

Weghorst began his career in Dutch lower league football before being spotted and signed by Drenthe-based club Emmen. There, he plundered an impressive 20 goals in 62 appearances before moving on to Heracles Almelo and then AZ. It was with the Alkmaar-based club where Weghorst's career really blossomed, as he scored 20 goals in 29 appearances during his debut season to finish a joint third top scorer and earn a maiden call up for Ronald Koeman's Dutch squad. 

Wout Weghorst at Wolfsburg has a nice alliterative feel to it and the move duly transpired when he joined the Bundesliga club ahead of the 2018-19 season, going on to net a hat-trick of hat-tricks before another 16 goals the following season to fire the side into the Europa League.

With Burnley staring relegation in the face, Sean Dyche turned to Weghorst as the man to lead his Clarets out of trouble as he made his first foray into the Premier League for a fee of £12m. 

As we now know, Dyche's rare dip into the transfer market did not pay off and Weghorst moved on loan to Besiktas where he has impressed in front of goal. 
United have a mixed record when it comes to ageing, veteran, short terms strikers. For every Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson, we have had Odion Ighalo and Edinson Cavani. In fairness, 17 goals in 39 games for Cavani during his first season at Old Trafford wasn't too bad a return but persistent fitness and availability issues meant the Uruguyuan barely featured during his second term at United with only two goals in 20 games.

Welcome to Manchester United. Welcome to Old Trafford, Wout Weghorst. 

Wednesday 11 January 2023

Senior United debuts for the young and the not so young

 Manchester United's Carabao Cup tie against lowly third tier outfit Charlton offered the ideal opportunity for Erik ten Hag.

Four days out from the pivotal meeting with cross-town rivals Manchester City and their boss Pep Guardiola, ten Hag unsurprisingly opted to rest most of his important senior stars. Casemiro, Marcus Rashford and Christian Eriksen got half an hour under their belt, whilst Lisandro Martinez made his first post-World Cup start with Anthony Martial and Raphael Varane not in the squad at all. In keeping with the previous ties in this competition, David de Gea was given the night off.

The latter enabled Tom Heaton to finally make his long awaited full debut between the sticks for the Reds. The veteran 36-year-old won the FA Youth Cup in 2003, a year after signing for the club. Two decades on, and Heaton, despite the loan arrival of Jack Butland, was in from the start against the League One side.

Heaton was handed a surprise debut by ten Hag's predecessor Ralf Rangnick, when he was brought on to replace Dean Henderson in the final minutes of last season's Champions League dead rubber at home to Young Boys. 

This was an ideal opportunity for the custodian as he kept a clean sheet and was untroubled throughout  the 90 minutes in which the brave League One midtablers battled gamely. Heaton was not called upon to make a save and will have enjoyed his long overdue moment in getting a chance of a senior appearance for the Reds. Martin Dubravka played against Villa and again in the win over Burnley. With ten Hag's United now through to the semi-finals, it seems likely de Gea will come into the team as United are 180 minutes away from a Wembley final. 
Heaton could play when we welcome Reading in the FA Cup fourth round but Butland will also be hoping to make his debut in that one. Nothing can take away from the fact Heaton now joins the pantheon of greats in pulling on the famous goalkeeper jersey at Old Trafford in a competitive game. 

At the other end of the age range, 17-year-old Stockport-born Kobbie Mainoo, widely tipped as a United star of the future, was a perhaps surprising name on ten Hag's team sheet. Mainoo shone during the Reds fabled run to Youth Cup glory last season and also caught the eye when he featured in United's winter Spanish training camp during the World Cup. He scored in the friendly defeat to Cadiz 

With Bruno Fernandes suspended and Donny van de Beek the victim of unfortunate injury, Mainoo slotted into midfield in front of Scott McTominay and Fred against Charlton, and didn't look out of place with a decent work rate, nice link play and some good touches on the ball. His passing was good and he acquitted himself well before he was replaced by Casemiro - the man he names as one of his heroes - on the hour mark. The League Cup has proved a launchpad for many a career, either here at United or elsewhere, and hopefully it will be the same for Mainoo, who was on the bench for the visit of Newcastle in October. There is certainly a lot more to come from just one of our promising crop of youngsters and this will be a night Mainoo will never forget

There was also another United debut: it was from the bench and brief, but no less special for the lad involved for that. Step forward, Facundo Pellistri. 
The highly-rated Uruguayan international joined the Reds from Penarol in 2020 and made it thirteenth time lucky when he came on for Anthony Elanga in the closing minutes after being an unused sub on twelve previous occasions. A small sample size of ten minutes against tiring League One opponents is admittedly not much to go on, but Pellistri made a mockery of his lack of game time with an eye-catching cameo. With respect to Elanga, Pellistri looked far more of a threat. He was bright and lively, looked neat and tidy and showed a willingness to take people on.

Pellistri popped up with an assist for Marcus Rashford's strike to make it 2-0 late on and definitely deserves further chances to show what he can do. He could be useful back up for Antony and I'd like to see the talented 21-year-old get more minutes under his belt. On this evidence, it's baffling he's been held back for so long. United host Reading in the FA Cup in a few weeks and so that could be more first team involvement for Pellistri. So far, so good, for the young winger. You don't play for your country by the age of 21 and feature in a World Cup no less if you're not a good player. 

Congratulations to our trio of great Reds on a memorable night in an otherwise routine United victory. Well done lads! 

What a job Erik ten Hag is doing at Manchester United

Let's all just take a moment to appreciate the incredible body of work Erik ten Hag is already building seven months into the job at Old Trafford. 
The erudite Erik became the first United manager to lose his first two competitive games in charge of the club since John Chapman way back in 1921 when we tumbled to ignominious losses against Brighton and Brentford back in August.

But, since then the trajectory has been sharp and upward. ten Hag steered United into the Carabao Cup semi-finals with a 3-0 win over third tier Charlton on Tuesday. With the result, he became the fastest United manager in history to reach 20 wins. 
The Reds renaissance was kick started by victory over Liverpool and since then - bar minor setbacks at derby rivals Manchester City and new manager-inspired Aston Villa - only Arsenal have pilfered more Premier League points.

The Gunners were vanquished in their only league loss so far, Spurs were brow beaten in the best United performance Old Trafford has seen for decades, and Chelsea were torn apart in an opening 45 minutes in which Graham Potter made a first half change. Newcastle would have been beaten too if not for banter officiating.

Since that opening day debacle against Brighton, no opposition side has left Old Trafford victorious. M16 has become a fortress again with nine successive wins United's best home sequence since 2017-18 when Jose Mourinho was in charge. You have to go back to the Reds last title winning campaign of 2012-13 for our previous best winning streak on home soil when we put together 12 consecutive home successes during Sir Alex Ferguson's final flourish.

You can consider the 'lesser' opposition of this run if you want - Tottenham, Sheriff, West Ham, Aston Villa, Burnley, Forest, Bournemouth, Everton and Charlton - but the fact is United would've struggled to beat most of these sides in the past. Indeed, Burnley and Villa have both won at Old Trafford in recent seasons and United have struggled against many of the league's so called 'lesser' lights. Middlesbrough and Southampton both got joy last term and it's these types of games which separate the successful sides from the also rans. It is eight wins on the spin for the first time since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's initial purple patch as caretaker manager but, this time, you feel the form is somewhat sustainable. 

There will be tougher tests to come; none tougher than Saturday's opponents from across the city - the ultimate barometer, the biggest test of how far we've come - and then the trip to Arsenal, but United should not fear anyone. No one will want to face this United side at the minute. You look forward to watching us play now and ten Hag has brought back discipline, instilled a team spirit and got us playing with style and verve again. He's improved the standards and the mentality, put his own stamp on the team's identity and has been assertive and decisive. In short, ten Hag has been everything a Manchester United manager should be, so far at least. Dedicated and determined but demanding, he is the first manager we have had since Sir Alex to be the perfect embodiment of an Old Trafford boss. 

Cristiano Ronaldo has been moved on with the circus surrounding his acrimonious departure dealt with through minimal fuss. United are four points off Manchester City and level on points with high flying surprise package Newcastle having played a game less. Joint third as we approach the halfway point of the season and in a major cup semi final - a position we'd have gladly taken with both hands if offered it back in August. A 74% win rate at this stage is mightily impressive but he is only just getting started and United remain the only English side in contention for all four domestic and European competitions. 

Casemiro's signing has been seminal and sensationally impactful. He has been surely the signing of the season (excluding the freakish cyborg of Erling Haaland), with his ability to break up play, hold up opponents, stop counter-attacks, make tactical fouls and win the ball back. In turn, the full-backs have improved and the attackers get more service. And to think United very nearly went for Adrien Rabiot instead. Thank you, Veronique Rabiot!

Marcus Rashford has been a man reborn by ten Hag's arrival with his relentless red-hot streak in front of goal the epitome of ten Hag's coaching excellence. Rashford's best goalscoring season came in 2019-20 when he missed three months of the season only to return after the lockdown-enforced hiatus to plunder 22 goals. He is already on 15 goals for the season (18 if you include the World Cup) for 2022-23, a goal every 123 minutes, and is a man on top of his game right now. Rashford is a man revitalised and is clearly loving life under the tutelage of ten Hag. He is a shoo-in for any team of the season and looks set to win a second PL Player of the Month award for November&December. He is just one of many of United's hitherto faltering stars to be given a new lease of life under the Dutchman. 

Luke Shaw has been the best left-back in the league this season, Diogo Dalot has been our most improved player and Fred has been very impressive despite being reduced to the role of squad player upon the arrivals of Messrs Casemiro and Christian Eriksen.

There is still a long way to go, and the true judgement of ten Hag and United has yet to come to pass. But the early signs are really positive, and he has managed to unite an erstwhile divided fanbase into believing just about anything is possible. ten Hag you're the one... 

Friday 6 January 2023

Match report: Man Utd 3-1 Everton

Marcus Rashford scored for the fifth game in a row as United increased the pressure on Everton's beleaguered boss Frank Lampard with a deserved FA Cup victory at Old Trafford.

This was a seventh win in a row for Erik ten Hag's side, as the Reds sealed their place in the fourth round of the world's oldest cup competition - one which United's Dutch manager admits he will be aiming to win.

Antony turned home Rashford's cross in the fourth minute before Conor Coady capitalised on a rare David de Gea error to equalise. Coady then scored at the wrong end to restore the Reds lead and - after Dominic Calvert - Lewin had a goal disallowed, Rashford's injury time penalty settled matters.

ten Hag opted not to rest any of his first team; that chance will surely come on Tuesday when we host third tier Charlton in the Carabao Cup. There were four changes from the XI which beat Bournemouth on Tuesday as the returning Diogo Dalot was restored to the side in place of Aaron Wan - Bissaka. Raphael Varane came in for Harry Maguire, Tyrell Malacia replaced Victor Lindelof and Antony recovered from his knock to come in ahead of the stricken Donny van de Beek.

It took United less than five minutes to go ahead when the front three linked up to devastating effect. Anthony Martial fed Rashford and he burst past Seamus Coleman to pick out the onrushing Antony, who slid home a simple finish at the back post.

United almost went 2-0 ahead immediately after more good work from Antony found Martial, but he fired his effort across goal and wide when he perhaps should have done better. 

The writing looked on the wall for the struggling Toffees given United have not conceded since the World Cup, but de Gea's baffling error changed all that ten minutes further on. Neal Maupay's trickling, mishit cross somehow bemused the usually dependable de Gea, who seemed to forget he could use his hands as the ball squirmed under him and fell invitingly for Coady to tap in from three yards.

Demarai Gray struck the outside of a post and Jordan Pickford saved well to deny Martial at the other end in an exciting, end to end encounter. 
Christian Eriksen flashed narrowly off target and Rashford went close from distance with the tie played in the classic frantic, harum scarum manner associated with the classic English FA Cup match.

United had scored early in the first half and did so again after the resumption. Having collected the ball out wide, Rashford drove into the box and showed lovely footwork to beat his defender and his drilled cross was turned into his own net by the stretching Coady.

Pickford saved superbly from Bruno Fernandes as United looked to put the game to bed but Everton sub Calvert - Lewin, searching for his obligatory goal against the Reds, seemed to have done just that shortly after coming on.

Calvert - Lewin fired in under de Gea after good build up play from Gray, but replays showed the latter was marginally offside and VAR correctly chalked the 'goal' out. 

Rashford went close with a trademark free-kick - well saved by Pickford - but Rashford eventually prevailed against his compatriot when substitute Alejandro Garnacho was scythed down by Godfrey. Our no.10 rolled the resultant spot-kick into the corner for his 13th goal of a red-hot season to finally put the game beyond any lingering doubt.

United certainly weren't at their best but got the job done to move into the next round and leave a cloud hanging over Everton manager Lampard. You're getting sacked in the morning?

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Marcus Rashford